It’s About More Than Money: Why College Athletes Should Not be Paid
With hot headlines such as the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, unionization by Northwestern football players, and high profile college football players getting sanctioned for selling their autographs, the debate over whether college athletes should be paid is more heated than ever. While reasonable arguments can be raised to pay the athletes, many of the complications that would come with pay are overlooked. Ultimately, the cost of paying athletes is likely to outweigh the benefit and pay should not be implemented.
Stories of Johnny Manziel or Todd Gurley getting sanctioned for making a few hundred dollars off of their own autograph scream injustice. Narratives of schools like the University of Alabama or the University of Texas profiting millions while their athletes go unpaid appear blatantly unfair. Anyone who sees the NCAA’s annual revenue would instinctually feel that something inequitable was going on. However, these anecdotes often cause us to see the issue of college athlete compensation while wearing blinders.
First, high profile athletes are by far in the minority. The NCAA and its members contain more than 460,000 student-athletes. While those like Johnny Manziel or Todd Gurley are in the news far more frequently and generate far more income than most of the athletes, the decisions made regarding the pay of college athletes would affect all of those 460,000 athletes.
Second, universities like the University of Alabama or the University of Texas are in the small minority of universities that actually make money each year. Of the 228 athletics departments at NCAA Division I public schools, just 23 generated enough money in 2012 to cover their own expenses. Of those 23, 16 received some sort of subsidy to help cover those expenses. That is just the public schools in Division I, not considering the schools that make up Division II and III.
Finally, the NCAA’s total revenue is deceiving. While it is true that the revenue is substantial, the funds are not simply stacked up for NCAA president Mark Emmert to swim through like Scrooge McDuck. Those funds are used to support operational expenses and athlete travel expenses for 89 national championships in 23 sports, provide catastrophic-injury insurance coverage for all athletes, various grant, scholarship, and internship programs, reimbursement to schools that provide scholarships and sponsor sports, and helping athletes who need educational material, clothing, and emergency travel expenses.
Taking the issue in light of those three factors gives proper context to the discussion. It is not simply an issue of taking the piles of money that were earned by athletes and giving it back to them. The decision made in regard to compensation of these athletes will have some effect on all 460,000 of the athletes, each of the universities they compete for, and on the funds used to help the athletes and allow them to compete.
The end goal for all of those advocating for athlete payment is to simply redistribute the revenue from universities and the NCAA back into the pockets of athletes. However, it is not that simple. Will each of the athletes be paid? Just the athletes in revenue producing sports? If it is just revenue producing sports, will pay be different from player to player? Where will the funds come from?
If it were decided that all athletes should be paid, regardless of sport, this means that hundreds of thousands of athletes will need to receive money. Even if the revenue of the programs in the black were combined with that of the NCAA, without considering the debt of the other schools or the operating expenses that go along with the NCCA, the return to each student would be rather minimal. However, when taken in light of the universities running at a deficit and the cost incurred by the NCAA to fund the events and help the athletes, it would be impossible.
That leaves the option of paying just some of the athletes. It stands to reason that if just some of the athletes are paid, it should be those that are producing income for the universities. This is typically limited to men’s football and basketball, and women’s basketball. If each of those athletes at all of the universities of those programs are paid, it is still likely to be a substantial sum of money from wherever it is taken. The majority of this money would likely come from the NCAA. Doing so would likely force the NCAA to reallocate money that had been used to fund non-income producing sports, their athletes, and the championships for those sports, to be given to athletes in income producing sports. Ultimately, it would likely doom some, if not many, of the non-income producing sports. This would eliminate the educational and personal development opportunities provided to thousands of students through those sports and the accompanying funds and scholarships.
Alternatively, we could pay just some of the athletes in the income producing sports. Advocates like sports analyst Jay Bilas believe that payment of the athlete should be left up to the university, and the free market should drive the payment amount. This would mean that the universities who have revenue beyond their expenses could then choose to use that revenue how they please, paying certain players as much as they see fit. While the free market argument seems more plausible than the rest, it will also likely have a substantial detrimental impact to the non-income sports landscape and its athletes. Surely, universities will use their funds to try and drive up income for income-producing sports. This means taking it away from non-income producing sports or eliminating those programs altogether. Again, these athletes would lose out on the educational and developmental opportunities that they likely would not get otherwise.
If the goal of college athletic is strictly money, then perhaps it is possible, but I believe it still stands for something more. If it does, then the cost of paying athletes outweighs the benefits of doing so.
 The NCAA Budget: Where the Money Goes, NCAA, http://www.ncaa.org/health-and-safety/ncaa-budget-where-money-goes (last updated Oct. 15, 2013).
 Steve Berkowitz Steve Berkowitz, Jodi Upton & Erik Brady, Most NCAA Division I Athletic Departments Take Subsidies, USA TODAY (July 1, 2013, 12:48 PM) http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2013/05/07/ncaa-finances-subsidies/2142443/
 The NCAA Budget: Where the Money Goes, supra note 1.
 Ed Sherman, My full Q/A with Jay Bilas on Pay-For-Play: NCAA ‘Unwilling to do the Right Thing’: Advocates Free Market System (Feb. 14, 2014), http://www.shermanreport.com/my-qa-with-jay-bilas-on-pay-for-play-ncaa-unwilling-to-do-the-right-thing-this-is-pro-sports/